Which? warns about fake reviews ahead of Black Friday

News, Retail

? is warning of the risk of fake reviews misleading shoppers this Black Friday as new research suggests Amazon is struggling to spot and prevent sellers from using unscrupulous tactics to manipulate their ratings.

Fake reviews are a big problem on many of the world’s biggest websites and Which? has also previously uncovered evidence of fake and suspicious review activity on eBay, Facebook and TripAdvisor. 

In the UK, Amazon is a dominant force with Black Friday shoppers. Which? research found 34 per cent of consumers planned to buy something there this Black Friday, compared to 16 per cent at John Lewis and seven per cent at Currys PC World. 

In its latest investigation Which? looked at the first page of Amazon listings for some of the most popular Black Friday product categories, including tablets, smartphones and wearables, as well as headphones and mobile phone accessories – where it has previously found evidence of concerning review activity. 

Which? uncovered a range of obvious tactics sellers are using to manipulate review ratings. Amazon says it has clear policies that prohibit sellers from engaging in this type of activity, and has mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, but Which? is concerned that its approach is not effective enough. Which?’s experts found:

  • Blatant evidence of sellers incentivising shoppers to write positive reviews, using free gifts or vouchers. Despite exposing this practice in previous investigations and it being in breach of Amazon’s site policies, this appears to be a persistent issue. In a number of cases the products were also labelled with the Amazon’s Choice endorsement and had comments within reviews such as: “wouldn’t have placed this review but for the fact that I am hoping to claim the free gifts offered by doing so”. 

  • Large numbers of positive product reviews uploaded in a suspiciously short space of time. In one example a pair of Pro-Elec headphones had 1,006 ratings and 4.8 stars despite the listing having only been added less than six months earlier. That’s more than five reviews each day, on average, for a brand that’s unknown outside of Amazon. Of those reviews, 92 per cent were five stars.

  • Products with a suspiciously high number of review images. Which? research has shown how unscrupulous sellers often ask for images when they request positive reviews on their products. One smartwatch by Willful, an Amazon’s Choice product, had 3,800 images posted alongside the 2,544 written reviews – easily outnumbering the reviews with images left for products by better-known brands – this is more than 60 times the number of reviews with images left on the Apple Watch Series 3.

  • Review merging – where sellers merge dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings as a way to transfer positive reviews from one to another. This included a supposed iPhone 11 adaptor which appeared to share reviews with the popular PS4 video game The Last of Us. 

  • Products with colour ‘variations’ manipulated to create higher numbers of positive reviews – evidence of users leaving multiple reviews, on the same day, by selecting different colour variants, in an apparent effort to evade any systems Amazon uses to detect fake reviews.

  • An account that had been hacked and used to leave a five-star review – one review of a set of headphones had been updated with a claim that the reviewer’s account had been hacked and used to leave a five-star review, a tactic that other people have previously reported to Which?. 

With many high street stores forced to shut due to lockdown restrictions, it’s likely that more people than ever will turn to online shopping in the weeks ahead. Which? is concerned that some sellers are seeking to manipulate reviews to increase their prominence in Amazon search results.

Worryingly there also appears to have been a rise in the proportion of suspicious reviews on Amazon in the UK since March’s coronavirus lockdown, according to ReviewMeta data.

ReviewMeta’s data suggests that there was a more than 30 per cent rise in the proportion of unnatural reviews on Amazon between March and August following the first coronavirus lockdown. This means consumers are at risk of being misled given Which? research has found that people could be more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products online if they have been boosted by fake reviews. 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has previously estimated that £23 billion a year of consumer transactions are influenced by online reviews and many people will be looking to use them as a helpful guide to get a good deal in the sales.

Says a CMA spokesperson: 

“Fake and misleading reviews are damaging to both shoppers and businesses, which is why we’re taking action to clamp down on such illegal behaviour.

“Earlier this year, for example, both Facebook and eBay committed to tackle the trade of such reviews on their sites after we demanded they address the issue.

“We are continuing to review several major websites to see whether they are doing enough to protect consumers from fake reviews. We have gathered a significant amount of evidence about their systems and are now in the process of examining it.”

Adds Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services:

“Our investigation has uncovered popular Black Friday product categories that are littered with fake and suspicious reviews – suggesting that deals that look too good to be true often are. This leaves shoppers at risk of being misled into buying poor quality and potentially dangerous products online.

“With people more reliant on online shopping than ever before due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s vital that online platforms step up and do more to protect their users from fake reviews, otherwise the regulator must be prepared to swiftly step in with strong action.”

5 tips on how to spot fake reviews 

1. If it looks too good to be true…then it probably is

A healthy degree of scepticism is your best weapon against fake reviews. If a product has an unusually high number of reviews relative to others in that category, especially if these reviews are overwhelmingly positive, you’d be right to exercise caution. 

2. Actually read the reviews

Don’t just trust the overall rating – read some reviews to look for suspicious repetition or signs of incentivisation, and sort by recent reviews to see what new buyers thought. Always check negative reviews as well, to see if there are recurring issues.

3. Take extra care with brands you don’t recognise

The majority of fake review activity we’ve seen has been on brands that are all but unknown outside marketplaces. If you don’t recognise the brand, check to see if it has a legitimate-looking website, with clear contact details. You could even try calling or emailing the seller with a question, to see how quickly they respond.

4. Be wary of products with lots of pictures or videos 

Sellers on Facebook review groups who incentivise positive reviews often encourage people to add photos and videos. Ask yourself, how likely is it that you’d take the time to snap multiple images, or a video, of a product that you’re reviewing honestly?

5. Report suspicious reviews to Amazon

Consumers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product, when they are looking at websites, are encouraged to report this to the online platform so that it can investigate.

Amazon’s reporting mechanism can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/contact-us/features-and-services.html

Which?’s Black Friday insider’s guide: https://www.which.co.uk/news/black-friday/

Chris Price
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